Following through on a pledge he made during his failed presidential bid, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said Tuesday that he would introduce a measure to expand the U.S. military by 40,000 troops to stave off what he argued was a worsening crisis within America's fighting forces.
Kerry called for personnel boosts of 30,000 in the Army and 10,000 in the Marine Corps -- a plan he estimated would cost between $4.5 billion and $5 billion a year.
The measure, which the senator plans to attach to the $81.9-billion supplemental budget request sent to Congress by President Bush on Monday, also calls for boosting benefits for soldiers and their families beyond the levels Bush is seeking.
Kerry's proposal would include broader death benefits than those suggested by Bush. It would cover any service member killed in the line of duty, whereas the president's proposal increases benefits for those killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kerry said his measure also would allow soldiers to make penalty-free withdrawals from IRA accounts for expenses associated with deployments, and permit the spouses and children of slain troops to remain in military housing for up to one year rather than the current 180 days.
At a breakfast meeting with Pentagon reporters, Kerry also acknowledged the difficulties he faced in bringing Americans to his side on national security issues during the presidential campaign.
"When you're running against an incumbent president of the United States, they've got a bully pulpit that you don't have and they have an automatic trust factor that [challengers] don't have," Kerry said.
"Americans accepted that I could be commander in chief," he said. "What they were unwilling to do was shift commanders in midstream. That's a tough argument. It's never happened in the course of a war. It didn't happen now."
Kerry said he had yet to discuss his military expansion proposal with either Republican or Democratic leaders in Congress. But bipartisan support for a larger military has grown over the last year as the Pentagon has asked troops to serve multiple tours of duty in Iraq and has become more reliant on reservists to fill out units deploying to combat zones.
Kerry's bill, however, will face opposition from Pentagon leaders. For more than a year, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has resisted lawmakers' calls for a permanently larger military, saying that an Army initiative to create more front-line troops by retraining and reassigning soldiers who perform support functions is a more cost-effective solution.
Kerry also told reporters that he would vote to approve the $81.9-billion supplemental budget request, saying the money was necessary to continue military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and to refurbish and replace equipment used in both countries.
In October 2003, Kerry voted against an $87-billion supplemental war budget bill. He cast that vote after he had supported a different version of the bill. Bush used Kerry's "no" vote to argue during the campaign that his opponent had voted to deny money for troops in combat and to portray the Democrat as indecisive.
"I think we're in a very different situation" now, Kerry said. "I'm going to vote for this.... I think this money is important to our being successful and to the completion of the process."
And he stood by his previous vote.
"Mine was the right vote at the time, and I wouldn't change it if we went back to that point in time because it was the right vote," he said. "We didn't have a plan, and they didn't spend the money correctly."